What are the workplace impacts of employees isolating at home?

The onset of Omicron in recent weeks has focussed attention on employees isolating at home either due to testing positive to COVID-19 or being a close contact of someone who has tested positive. As a result, many employees have sought to access accrued personal or sick leave entitlements for the period of their isolation.

What accrued personal or sick leave entitlements can employees access whilst isolating?

Access to paid personal leave, which an employee has accrued for both sick leave and carer’s leave is available when an employee is unfit for work due to personal illness or injury.

Carer’s leave is available to an employee where a member of their immediate family or household needs care or support because they are ill or injured or due to an unexpected emergency affecting that person.

On balance, an employee who tests positive to COVID-19 should be entitled to access their accrued sick leave entitlements, even if they experience no symptoms. An employer is entitled to request reasonable evidence from an employee regarding a positive test before approving paid sick leave. If an employee tests positive during a period of annual leave, they may request to convert the absence to sick leave.

Where an employee cannot attend work due to the need to isolate for being a close contact, primarily they are not entitled to access paid personal leave. The reason is that the employee is not ill or injured and not absent from work to provide care or support to a member of their immediate family or household.

When can an employee access their accrued annual leave entitlements?

If an employee exhausts or cannot access their accrued personal or sick leave entitlements for their isolation period, the employee may request to access their accrued annual leave entitlements. In principle, an employer cannot unreasonably refuse such a request. In addition, it would be unlawful for an employer to unilaterally determine that any absence from work by an employee who is isolating at home should be treated as annual leave.

What can employers do?

On the basis that high COVID-19 case numbers will continue to be experienced in Australia for some time, employers may wish to issue a workplace policy or other type of communication to employees to advise them of their rights and entitlements should they be forced to isolate due to testing positive to COVID-19 or due to being a close contact. This information should remove any potential confusion or disputes when employees are required to isolate themselves.

The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) has recommended that employers may exercise their discretion to enable employees who are isolating at home to accesses their accrued personal leave where they have been in close contact, and are not themselves ill or actually caring for an immediate family member.

What other options exist?

Where an employee cannot earn income because they need to isolate and either has no accrued personal or sick leave entitlements or cannot access those entitlements, an employee may be eligible for the Federal Government’s Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment. An employee who is eligible for the payment may receive up to $750.00 gross for each 7-day period that the person must isolate. The relevant information and claim form are located on the Services Australia website.

This information is provided by Jobs Australia to assist Members with awareness of the current provisions in relation to employees isolating at home across Australian states and territories. Jobs Australia’s Workplace Relations team will provide further updates should any new developments or changes to this information be announced.

If you would like to speak to a member of our Workplace Relations team, please call 1800 331 915 and select option #1.